Baymen files class action lawsuit to regain truck beach access

Anglers fighting for their right to drive on Truck Beach, a disputed fishing spot in Napeague, have launched their latest push to counter efforts by beachfront property owners to keep the shoreline private.

Lawyers for 12 fishermen and administrators for the town of East Hampton – the group created three centuries ago to manage public use of the town’s beaches, the bottom of the bay and the wetlands – are suing a judge from the Suffolk County court to certify as a class action a lawsuit filed March 17 on behalf of the town’s 28,000 residents. Lawyers for the owners have argued that fishermen should cut the line and move on after an appeals court panel recently ruled the beach was truck-free. The new lawsuit is one of many outstanding issues that are expected to keep the case in court beyond the 13 years it has already been litigated. “From my clients’ perspective, it’s a fight for their very existence,” said Southampton solicitor Dan Rodgers, who noted that his clients – 11 commercial fishermen and one recreational fisherman – were not looking for help. ‘money. “They literally can’t make a living to support their families.”

A central issue in the case is an 1882 sale of land by city administrators to then-resident Arthur Benson. The owners claim the beach was included in subsequent deeds, but the state Supreme Court dismissed the argument in 2016. The Second Judicial Department’s Appeals Division reversed that decision in February, barring offroad driving on the shore. And by refusing to hear the case, the State Court of Appeals effectively accepted that decision.

Fishermen and trustees argue the ruling left intact an easement that allows them to fish from the beach, but argue that commercial fishermen need trucks to do so, which the owners don’t want. Rodgers notes that Benson’s act allowed anglers to use “wheeled vehicles” to transport their gear to the surf. In the 19th century, before the invention of the automobile, carts were used. These days, pick-up trucks are the wheeled mode of transportation used by fishermen, Rodgers says.

Protest at Truck Beach overtakes beachfront homeowners

Stephen Angel, the managing partner of Riverhead-based law firm Esseks, Hefter, Angel, Di Talia & Pasca, which represents four homeowners’ associations which originally sued to ban driving on the beach in 2009 , said the courts have already ruled on the issues. raise the fishermen in their latest case.

“They want another bite of the apple,” Angel argued. “They’ve had a bunch of bites already. … In my experience, once you’ve litigated something over 13 years with in-between appeal areas and a trial that lasted over a week, you usually don’t get another bite out of this apple.

Daniel Spitzer, an attorney with the Manhattan-based law firm Hodgson Russ LLP, which represents the directors, countered that there were still unresolved issues at stake for the courts to decide.

“The original lawsuit had a lot to do with the city’s licensing of recreational truck drivers. That’s not the point of this lawsuit at all,” Spitzer said. “The owners association has tried to present the (rights of access) in a way that has a serious impact on the commercial and recreational fishing industry in East Hampton. Clarifying our rights is the reason we brought the action. »

Protesters at Truck Beach in Amagansett on Sunday, June 27, 2021
Protesters at Truck Beach in Amagansett on Sunday, June 27, 2021.

In October, city authorities summoned 14 people for driving their trucks onto the beach in an act of civil disobedience to protest last year’s appeals court ruling. Suffolk Judge Paul Baisley later granted a request from landlord lawyers for the protesters’ trespassing cases to be moved from the East Hampton Town Magistrates’ Court to his court, where the access lawsuit the range has been processed. The municipality then filed a complaint against the owners.

“The consolidation of the civil and criminal cases is inappropriate because (the) plaintiff has requested a stay of the criminal proceedings while this motion is pending could affect the defendants’ right to a speedy trial,” said Christopher McDonald, attorney at Albany-based law. firm of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP, which is representing the city in the case, wrote to the judge.

Outside of court, the city said it plans to explore the condemnation of the disputed 4,000-foot beach west of Hither Hills State Park under eminent domain, the legal proceeding in which the government can seize land for public use. But to date, the city has not acted on this threat.

“The ability for all members of the public to access and use our beaches is a fundamental right of East Hampton residents that must be protected and maintained,” said East Hampton City Supervisor, Peter Van Scoyoc.

Advocates such as Kevin McAllister, the founding chairman of Sag Harbor-based environmental advocacy group Defend H2O, have also sounded the alarm that the Truck Beach case is a sign of “the privatization public beaches”.

The case essentially pits wealthy beachfront landlords in Amagansett against a subset of Bonackers — descendants of the colonial-era settlers of the South Fork — who are among the few bay men who still practice one of the first professions of the community: fishing.

When will the debate over whether the Bonackers can use their vans to fish at Truck Beach finally be over? Perhaps only those with the patience of an angler have the stamina to find out as this saga continues.

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